This article in the Atlantic about transgender children is really interesting, but for all the (often legitimate) worry about how to handle kids with “gender identity disorder,” I can’t help but think that we’d all be better off if our understanding of maleness and femaleness weren’t so straightjacketed. A lot of little kids like to cross-dress; some don’t feel at home in the gender roles they’re being pushed into. Some of those kids will grow up to identify as trans, or as a gender other than the one they were born as; some won’t. Seems to me it would be a lot better if we had a culture that allowed for greater gender fluidity, so that kids (and, hell, the rest of us) could just be themselves without being labeled “disordered” or freakish or wrong.
Most of the parents in the article seem to be doing the best that they can in a society that organizes itself into fairly rigid ways of classifying people, so this isn’t an indictment of them. It’s an indictment of a society that only allows for two genders; that insists “femaleness” and “maleness” are about what colors you like and whether you wear skirts or pants; and that can’t seem to grasp gender fluidity beyond the idea that someone “trapped in the wrong body.” And it’s an indictment of a medical culture that “treats” patients by reinforcing stereotypical and misogynist gender roles:
Dr. Kenneth Zucker has been seeing children with gender-identity disorder in Toronto since the mid-’70s, and has published more on the subject than any other researcher. But lately he has become a pariah to the most-vocal activists in the American transgender community. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the bible for psychiatric professionals—will be updated. Many in the transgender community see this as their opportunity to remove gender-identity disorder from the book, much the same way homosexuality was delisted in 1973. Zucker is in charge of the committee that will make the recommendation. He seems unlikely to bless the condition as psychologically healthy, especially in young children.
In his case studies and descriptions of patients, Zucker usually explains gender dysphoria in terms of what he calls “family noise”: neglectful parents who caused a boy to overidentify with his domineering older sisters; a mother who expected a daughter and delayed naming her newborn son for eight weeks. Zucker’s belief is that with enough therapy, such children can be made to feel comfortable in their birth sex. Zucker has compared young children who believe they are meant to live as the other sex to people who want to amputate healthy limbs, or who believe they are cats, or those with something called ethnic-identity disorder. “If a 5-year-old black kid came into the clinic and said he wanted to be white, would we endorse that?” he told me. “I don’t think so. What we would want to do is say, ‘What’s going on with this kid that’s making him feel that it would be better to be white?’”
Young children, he explains, have very concrete reasoning; they may believe that if they want to wear dresses, they are girls. But he sees it as his job—and the parents’—to help them think in more-flexible ways. “If a kid has massive separation anxiety and does not want to go to school, one solution would be to let them stay home. That would solve the problem at one level, but not at another. So it is with gender identity.” Allowing a child to switch genders, in other words, would probably not get to the root of the psychological problem, but only offer a superficial fix.
The “family noise” that supposedly causes gender identity, though, is always the mother’s fault. An example of a family who underwent treatment with Dr. Zucker:
When he was 4, the boy, John, had tested at the top of the gender-dysphoria scale. Zucker recalls him as “one of the most anxious kids I ever saw.” He had bins full of Barbies and Disney princess movies, and he dressed in homemade costumes. Once, at a hardware store, he stared up at the glittery chandeliers and wept, “I don’t want to be a daddy! I want to be a mommy!”
His parents, well-educated urbanites, let John grow his hair long and play with whatever toys he preferred. But then a close friend led them to Zucker, and soon they began to see themselves as “in denial,” recalls his mother, Caroline. “Once we came to see his behavior for what it was, it became painfully sad.” Zucker believed John’s behavior resulted from early-childhood medical trauma—he was born with tumors on his kidneys and had had invasive treatments every three months—and from his dependence during that time on his mother, who has a dominant personality.
When they reversed course, they dedicated themselves to the project with a thoroughness most parents would find exhausting and off-putting. They boxed up all of John’s girl-toys and videos and replaced them with neutral ones. Whenever John cried for his girl-toys, they would ask him, “Do you think playing with those would make you feel better about being a boy?” and then would distract him with an offer to ride bikes or take a walk. They turned their house into a 1950s kitchen-sink drama, intended to inculcate respect for patriarchy, in the crudest and simplest terms: “Boys don’t wear pink, they wear blue,” they would tell him, or “Daddy is smarter than Mommy—ask him.” If John called for Mommy in the middle of the night, Daddy went, every time.
Well that sounds helpful — just teach him that girls are stupid and weak and then he won’t want to be one.
The girl’s case was even more extreme in some ways. She insisted on peeing standing up and playing only with boys. When her mother bought her Barbies, she’d pop their heads off. Once, when she was 6, her father, Mike, said out of the blue: “Chris, you’re a girl.” In response, he recalls, she “started screaming and freaking out,” closing her hand into a fist and punching herself between the legs, over and over. After that, her parents took her to see Zucker. He connected Chris’s behavior to the early years of her parents’ marriage; her mother had gotten pregnant and Mike had been resentful of having to marry her, and verbally abusive. Chris, Zucker told them, saw her mother as weak and couldn’t identify with her.
…because even when the husband is abusive, it’s the woman’s fault. And when kids reject gender conformity, it’s because they’re “disordered.”
Gender policing hurts kids far worse than wearing a skirt will hurt a little boy, or playing with trucks will hurt a little girl. It hurts them whether they end up identifying with their biological gender or not.
- Do Me a Favor… by Holly June 27, 2009
- The Sissy-Whupping Method by Holly May 13, 2008
- Right-wing shock jocks: Now attacking children by Jill June 5, 2009
- A saner era? Myths about trans kids in schools, courtesy of FOX News by Holly February 17, 2008
- TRANSform Me by Jill March 5, 2010